Daniel Craig: A Viewer’s Guide

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There are only three no-no's when it comes to Daniel Craig: no rope-whipping of the testicles; no complex criminal schemes involving the word ‘quantum’; and no prying into his off-screen life. All three are likely to bring out the Bond in him. Happily, none of those feature on the list of things Empire likes to do – our quantum is quite solaced enough, thank you very much – so instead we’re using the release of Craig’s genre mash Cowboys & Aliens as an excuse to take stock of the 43 year-old actor’s career to date. And the actor’s journey to the A-list has been a fascinating one. It’s carried him from Cheshire to the Old West, via acclaimed TV dramas, costumed intrigue, muscular literary tales and trenches, both real and metaphoric. Here’s our pick of Craig’s CV to date, both good and not so good.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Casino Royale (2006)

It’s strange to think that, two movies in, the folk at ‘danielcraigisnotbond’ are still banging their anti-Craig drum. Presumably their cinema showed a different, shonky version of Casino Royale. Maybe one in which Craig emerged from the ocean in water wings, carrying a crocodile lilo? For the rest us, Craig more than earned his license to kill in the 00-reboot. Yes, his growly charisma and fractured psyche heralded a different kind of Bond and, no, he wasn't Sean Connery, but this was a different kind of world to spy on. Long gone were the hollowed-out volcanoes, goons in overalls and remote-control cars, replaced by sinister quasi-corporate cliques and suavely bespoke villains. If you looked as urbane as Pierce Brosnan, you were now probably one of the bad guys. Craig looked great in a suit – and when coming on all Ursula Andress in his swimmers – but it was his raw physicality and violent drive that gave Bond his energy back. The stunt work was astonishing too – that steepling crane chase is a high point in the franchise’s gilded history – while his sheer physicality made previous Bonds look like Nick Nack. And, no, he didn’t give a damn if his martini was shaken or stirred. See, all that and he’s low maintenance too.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Layer Cake (2004)

Layer Cake (or 'L4YER CAKƐ', if your spellcheck allows it) offered Craig the kind of propulsive narrative he's come to excel in. You know: running around, shooting, more running around, more shooting, quick breather, then repeat until dead. It's terrific fun – powered with every bit as much lunatic energy as you'd expect from Matthew 'Kick Ass' Vaughn – with its top dog leading the charge. He's 'XXXX' – not to be confused with xXx, however much we'd like it to be – and a London drug-dealer who manages to be on every imaginable side of some serious shifty transactions. Craig's on-screen assurance gives us a man who's out of his depth one minute and playing with a loaded deck the next. The bad guys – pretty much everyone else in the film – try, and fail, to force a misstep from the alphabetically challenged protagonist. In the end, it's Sienna Miller's sexy moll who unmans him – and us. In their brief screen time together, the pair two generate enough electricity to service the National Grid.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Road To Perdition (2002)

When cameras finally roll on Bond 23, Daniel Craig will be back taking direction from Road To Perdition's Sam Mendes and his career will have completed a full cycle. From villain to hero and corrupt ditherer to man of oak-strong convictions, he's mastered supporting roles and top billing with equal skill. There may not be too many villainous turns to relish in the immediate future (can audiences accept 007 tackling bad-guy roles?), so here's one to revisit. He inhabits the part of crime-syndicate heir Connor Rooney with venal malice and the blank staring eyes of a shark. Yup, he's a seriously nasty piece of work. Again, many of Craig's calling cards are here – the silent presence, the brooding charisma, the natty suits – and even in the presence of greats like Paul Newman and Tom Hanks, he's never overshadowed. American audiences and studios would have taken note, but thanks to that nailed-on Chicago accent, they probably wouldn't have guessed there was a limey in their midst.

RECOMMENDED: Enduring Love (2004)

For an actor who’s made hay as an alpha on-screen presence – Cowboys & Aliens proves he can whoop substantial ass even while clad in chaps – Craig’s mild university lecturer, Joe Rose, is a serious departure. Craig buries his natural physicality under layers of restraint in this Ian McEwan adaptation. When we meet him Rose is a thinker not a doer, but the appearance of Rhys Ifans’ unhinged stalker sees those layers slowly stripped away and the rawness return. In other words: he starts the film in University Challenge but ends it in Straw Dogs. Roger Michell’s drama is taut in parts, lumpy in others, but the jittery menace of Ifans and Craig’s back-to-nature response is compelling right to its final, violent conclusion.

RECOMMENDED: Sylvia (2003)

This biopic of American poet Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) sees a perfectly cast Craig in top form as her less-than-star-crossed lover, Ted Hughes. The pair had a troubled marriage – she was a dreamer; he was a call-a-spade-a-bloody-shovel Yorkshireman – and those sparks burn with a white heat on screen thanks to strong turns from the two leads. Craig growls with pent-up frustration as his wife spirals into depression, while libidinous charisma and eye for the ladies plunges their marriage into turmoil. Their fast-unravelling love affair gives him the chance to boom sharp words in a perfectly modulated Yorkshire burr. The film never quite gets to grips with the A-bomb flash of its protagonist’s incendiary lives, but Craig is terrific as the future Poet Laureate. Plus, somehow it’s nice to think that 007 also wrote The Iron Giant.

FOR THE FAN ONLY: Defiance (2009)If playing real-life characters takes serious research, and playing real-life historical figures requires a library card and multiple trips to the archives too, playing real-life historical figures who are also war heroes must be a mind-bending labour of love. There's no scope for witty on-camera improvs or movie-friendly character development here: it's got to be by the (history) book stuff. Still, you'd never have guessed that from the gusto with which Craig throws himself into the role of Jewish partisan Tuvia Bielski in Ed Zwick's World War 2 actioner. Hiding out in the Belorussian forests with a band of Nazi-battling guerillas, Craig's Bielski nails the film's tone and hits the inspirational notes with ease (“Jews do not fight,” says a disbelieving Red Army officer at one point. “These Jews do," growls Craig). The film is unlikely to get you out of your seat – Zwick's uneven storytelling rarely matches the raw power of earlier work Glory – but it boasts a suitably chiselled figurehead.

ONE TO MISS: The Invasion (2007)

There have been some cerebral sci-fis in recent years, films that have stirred the heart as well as provoking the brain. The Invasion isn’t one of them. If Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film offers any physical sensation it’s the kind of dull, throbbing feeling for which Daniel Craig’s harried doctor would prescribe plenty of bed rest. That the plot itself is a headache doesn’t help Craig elevate his performance as a man facing the menace caused by a pod-people-creating infection. It’s a muddled re-reading of the prosaic paranoia that made Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers, and its three subsequent movie adaptations, so potent and scary. This is a message movie with no obvious message. Craig shows a gentler side of his range as the concerned doc, Ben Driscoll, and does what he can with a constricting role, but this isn’t his finest hour – or his finest hairstyle (cough comb-over cough).